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Zelensky visits Ukraine's east as Russia makes push for Donbas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday made his first trip to the country's war-torn east since the launch of Moscow's invasion, as Russian forces intensified their efforts to seize key cities in the Donbas region. Read our live blog to see how all the day's events unfolded.

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Germany's government and conservative opposition have agreed a deal that will release 100 billion euros ($107 billion) to modernise the army in the face of the Russian threat.

An agreement was reached late Sunday to create a special fund for military procurement that will also allow Berlin to achieve NATO's target of spending two percent of GDP on defence.

The deal, which involves amending budgetary rules in the national constitution, was struck after weeks of difficult negotiations between the parties in the governing coalition and the conservatives of former chancellor Angela Merkel, representatives of these groups told AFP.

Three days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged a special budget of 100 billion euros to rearm the German military and modernise its outdated equipment over the next few years.

But critics have since accused Scholz of timidity in his support for Kyiv and failing to take enough concrete action in terms of arms deliveries.

"It's very important for the head of state, which is commending the armies, to be present in Kharkiv," said General Dominique Trinquand, a former head of the French military mission to the United Nations. "The situation is very bad [in the] Donbas, where the Russian forces are advancing and the Ukrainian forces are in difficulty."

The "liberation" of Ukraine's Donbas is an "unconditional priority" for Moscow, while other Ukrainian territories should decide their future on their own, RIA news agency cited Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Sunday.

"The liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, recognised by the Russian Federation as independent states, is an unconditional priority," Lavrov said in an interview with French TV channel TF1, according to RIA.

For the rest of the territories in Ukraine, "the people should decide their future in these areas," he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday he had fired Kharkiv's security services chief for "not working on the defence of the city" since the start of Russia's invasion.

"I came, figured out and fired the head of the Security Service of Ukraine of the (Kharkiv) region for the fact that he did not work on the defence of the city from the first days of the full-scale war, but thought only about himself," Zelensky said in his daily national address. He spoke after visiting the country's war-ridden east for the first time since Russia's invasion.

The EU failed on Sunday to agree on an embargo of Russian oil, but diplomats but will still try to make progress ahead of a Monday-Tuesday summit on an exemption for pipeline deliveries to landlocked Central European countries, officials said.

However, a senior EU diplomat said there was "still too much detail to sort out" to hope for an agreement before European Union leaders gather in Brussels on Monday afternoon.

The proposed sanctions on oil imports is part of the European Union's sixth sanctions package on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russian shelling has destroyed all of the critical infrastructure in the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday, describing the taking of the city as Russia's "principal aim" right now.

"As a result of Russian strikes on Severodonetsk, all the city's critical infrastructure is destroyed... More than two-thirds of the city's housing stock is destroyed," Zelensky said in a televised speech.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck on Sunday expressed fears that the European Union's unity was "starting to crumble" ahead of a summit to discuss an oil embargo against Russia and plans to cut dependence on Russian energy.

EU leaders will meet on Monday and Tuesday to discuss a new sanctions package against Russia, which could also include an oil embargo, and a programme aiming to speed up ending dependence on fossil fuels, including Russian gas.

"After Russia's attack on Ukraine, we saw what can happen when Europe stands united. With a view to the summit tomorrow, let's hope it continues like this. But it is already starting to crumble and crumble again," Habeck told a news conference.

"It's the first time that Volodymyr Zelensky has visited troops in eastern Ukraine since the invasion began; he had been outside Kyiv but only to places in Kyiv region," FRANCE 24's Gulliver Cragg reported from Ukraine's Bukovel. "So this is clearly a bold step by the Ukrainian president."

Several explosions were heard in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Sunday hours after a visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was making his first trip outside of the Kyiv region since the start of Russia's invasion, a Reuters journalist said.

A large plume of dark smoke could be seen rising northeast of the city centre. Kharkiv has been subjected to Russian shelling in recent days after several weeks of relative quiet.

Ukrainian forces endured heavy artillery barrages on Sunday as they held off Russian attempts to capture Severodonetsk, the largest city Kyiv still controls in the Luhansk region of the Donbas, Ukrainian officials said.

The shelling was so intense it was not possible to assess casualties and damage, Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said. Dozens of buildings have been destroyed in the past few days. "The situation has extremely escalated," Gaidai said.

As the war in Ukraine rages, Serbia's president announced that he has secured an "extremely favourable" natural gas deal with Russia during a telephone conversation Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has refused to explicitly condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Serbia has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow. Vucic, a former pro-Russia ultranationalist, claims that he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has spent recent years cementing ties with Russia, a long-time ally.

Serbia is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas and its main energy companies are under Russian-majority ownership.

Poland has given Ukraine 18 AHS Krab self-propelled howitzers, Polish public radio reported on Sunday citing a government source, as Kyiv seeks to repel an intense Russian assault in the Donbas region in the east.

Faced with heavy shelling in its eastern provinces, Ukraine has called on the West to provide it with more longer-range weapons.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Ukrainian troops on the front lines in Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region on Sunday, the president's office announced.

The visit marks his first official appearance outside the Kyiv region since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

"You risk your lives for us all and for our country," the website of the president's office cited Zelensky as saying to the soldiers, adding that he handed out commendations and gifts.

2:49pm: Putin has 'no interest' in negotiating before he achieves territorial goals, Eastern Europe expert says

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. However, "the problem simply is that Putin does not want to negotiate, there is very little to say," said Oleg Kobtzeff, an Eastern Europe specialist at the American University in Paris.

"His objective is to seize as much territory as possible. Now, seizing the whole country - taking complete control of the entire country - that is something he realises he will not be able to do. So he's concentrating on the eastern regions of Donbas and the region of Luhansk - and also the northern shores of the Black Sea. Why would he negotiate if there's absolutely no interest for him in negotiating until he accomplishes his goals?"

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told journalists he still intends to block Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO. Erdogan said meetings this week with Finnish and Swedish delegations had not been "at the expected level", noting there had been no steps taken to alleviate Turkey's security concerns.

"As long as Tayyip Erdogan is at the head of the Republic of Turkey, we cannot say 'yes' to countries that support terror joining NATO," he told journalists on his plane following a visit to Azerbaijan Saturday, according to newspaper Hurriyet.

Erdogan referred to an interview on Swedish state television with Salih Muslim, a member of the Syrian Kurdish administration in northeast Syria, on the night of the delegation meeting. He cited this as evidence of Sweden's support for Syrian Kurdish militants that Turkey views as an extension of an outlawed Kurdish group that has led an insurgency against Turkey since 1984.

Patriarch Kirill said Sunday that the Russian Orthodox Church "understands" a decision by its branch in Ukraine to cut ties amid Moscow's offensive in the pro-Western country. "We fully understand how the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is suffering today," the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow.

"We understand that His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufriy and the episcopate should act as wisely as possible today so as not to complicate the lives of their believers," Patriarch Kirill said in his first comments since the announcement. He added that the "spirits of malice" wanted to divide the Orthodox people of Russia and Ukraine but they would not succeed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic agreed in a phone call on Sunday that Russia will continue supplying natural gas to Serbia and the two countries will bolster their partnership, the Kremlin said. The two leaders also discussed the issue of Ukraine and Kosovo, according to the Kremlin.

The Russian defence ministry said on Sunday that Russian missiles have destroyed a large Ukrainian arsenal in the city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, state news agency TASS quoted the ministry as saying.

The ministry also said Russian anti-aircraft defence systems shot down a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet in the Dnipro region, TASS reported.

Russian gas producer Gazprom said on Sunday its supply of gas to Europe through Ukraine via the Sudzha entry point stood at 44.1 million cubic metres (mcm), up from 43.96 mcm on Saturday. An application to supply gas via another major entry point, Sokhranovka, was rejected by Ukraine, Gazprom said.

Fighting for the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk continues with Russian forces conducting assault operations on Saturday, the general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said on Sunday. "With the use of artillery, Russian forces carried out assault operations in the area" of the city, the general staff said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced hope in a late-night video address that Ukraine's allies would provide more weapons, adding that he expected "good news" this week.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)